Getting the sensitivity knocked out of you
So let me start this by talking about my dad. My dad is a pretty good dude. He taught me to follow Jesus. He taught me to work hard. Taught me to be honest and hold on to my morals. And he taught me not to cry. Oh man, when I was a kid I cried. I cried all the time. I cried when I lost a videogame. I cried when the Sixers lost. I cried during the Lion King when Scar let go of his brother Mufasa into the stampede of water buffalo. I was a sensitive boy. But dad knocked it out of me. I’m not sure if it was on purpose, but I remember losing my ground in arguments with him if I was hysterical, since dad rarely was. So I learned to “man up” and not cry or get angry. I really tried to keep my cool because that was the best thing you could do is keep your cool.
I still hold that demeanor today, in fact. I’ve had an emotional month, though, and I’ve teared up twice in public. This is a big deal for me. And both times, I didn’t let the tears stream down my face. I held them in. One time I even tilted my head back to hold them in my eyes, until they dried up a bit, because somewhere in my mind I thought that it wasn’t really crying unless the tears fell down my face. It’s nonsense, of course.
And my friends were quick to remind me that if I were a woman, it is likely my tear ducts would have filled up and indeed the tears would’ve streamed down my face. Women have smaller tear ducts. There’s something about that that stuck with me. It’s not that I’m not emotional or I don’t cry. I have the upbringing that taught me not to cry and also the physiology to disguise it when I do cry. To be honest, there’s nothing really brave about not experiencing emotions when hurtful things happen, though I do think there is a time and a place for them. I don’t always lead with my emotions at the forefront, but I think they are a perfectly good and healthy part of life.
My head protects me from my heart, unfortunately
You see, though? That was a nice mental construct and abstraction about my feelings. I’m saying feelings are good but I’m not really showing my feelings while I say it. You see, I’m pretty good at talking about how I feel, but I’m not so good at feeling how I feel.
Sometimes I intellectualize my feelings to protect me from them because it’s so damn easy to be hurt by them. I still have a major sense of shame over my feelings and my tears, even, to the point where the most negative thought I have is self-hatred because I just can’t stand I’d be so stupid to cry in front of everyone. Oh boy, coupled with that sense of emotionlessness is my crippling sense of shame at the very thought of ever showing my emotions to the wrong person in the wrong place. The last time I did that, I told my friends, “I’m never (expletive) doing that again. That was stupid as shit. And I got nothing for it.” I even got defensive preemptively because I knew they were going to say how good it is for me to share how I feel.
And they’re right. It is. And honestly, I think Jesus makes it easy for us to feel those things, to feel suffering in ourselves, in our friendships, in our marriages and relationships, in our communities and neighborhoods, and in our world. Suffering and love are super connected to each other. They are almost like two sides of the same coin. We suffer because we love, because we empathize, because we feel.
And when you commune with God, when you walk with God, when you follow God, you become more familiar with what God suffers about, what God feels about. It’s what Brueggemann calls the pathos of God. You know what a prophet is? Someone who empathizes with the pathos of God. Some people have said it is someone who God speaks to, but it’s less cerebral than that. The prophet feels what God feels.
Feeling what God feels
In the Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann talks about how it is hard for us to imagine how God feels because we are children of the royal consciousness. That is to say, we are taught to feel about different things or not feel at all, in fact.
The prophet is the one who is not numb to the feelings of God. And suffice it to say the dominators and the evil ones try their best to get us not to feel God’s feeling. If I’m certain of anything it’s that there are powers in this world that are opposed to God and hellbent on getting us to not feel what God feels. That sounds dramatic, but it is so true in my experience of the world.
Brueggemann says the thing we are most numb to, and correct me if I’m wrong, is death. That the final result of sin in the world is death. This idea is manifestly in the New Testament. Jesus came to conquer death. Paul says the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death. But we might become numb to it. The senseless violence that surrounds us makes it easy for us to feel numb. We have access to so much more information, including information about death, that it can be hard to feel it. We see so much death that it’s almost impossible to not be numb to it and live your life. It’s hard to be emotional about the suffering in the world because there is so much.
Brueggemann says that it is the task of the prophet to bring people to engage their experiences of the suffering of death. As we follow God we feel suffering, and the suffering of death specifically.
Jeremiah is the suffering prophet. The one who feels what God feels about the downfall of Judah. Jeremiah’s grief was at two levels. He was seeing Israel being undone as they stopped following God, and moved with their worldly interests in affairs. The very fabric of who God made them into was being undone—and it was them doing the undoing. But also, there was intense trouble for Jeremiah because he wasn’t being listened to, and what he was saying was so transparent to him and no one else. He felt what no one else felt. And what’s our instinct in those cases? To stop feeling. Start avoiding. Run away. Jeremiah doesn’t. And he expressed himself through the very work that we read today that reminds us to not lose our feeling, our ability to empathize with suffering and pain.
Getting in touch with your feelings
So what I want to give you here is that we need to get in touch with our feelings if we want to feel what God feels. If we want to move with God we need to know what moves God. What suffering is God concerned about? How can we unlock that in us? How can we be prophets in our own right? What systems of the world keep us numb to our feelings?
I don’t want to fetishize negative feelings or act like experiencing them is what makes us holy. But I do want to say that if we don’t become familiar with our suffering, and the suffering of the world, it’ll be heard to know how God suffers and also how we seek to alleviate suffering.
The truth is the work that God does to comfort us in our suffering is undone if we just turn to coping mechanisms to numb the pain and numb the feeling. It’s interesting because we sometimes numb our negative feelings. Left with feelinglessness, we try to get a boost of excitement in some way.
Sometimes, though, our negative feelings are so crippling it’s impossible to imagine doing anything but avoiding them. The wet blanket is so hard to get out from under. The winter weather is too heavy. The winter night is too dark. It’s too rainy. The despair that Jeremiah felt led to us despair. But another prophet, who we’ll get to next week, casts a new an exciting vision forward: Isaiah.
But for now, let’s talk about how to get in touch with our suffering.
First, try to bear it and cope with it in healthy ways. Talk to your friend about your feelings. Build spiritual friendships. Can’t do that? Try journaling about them? Pray about them. Get them out from your head and into the world.
Don’t be afraid to lament. A lot of times angry feelings, and even angry feelings at God, are easier to access. Know that those feelings are OK to have and might even get you in touch with God’s.
Maybe use a spiritual director or a psychotherapist or your pastor. These people are helpful in repeating your feelings and helping you think about your feelings too.
Keep touching them. Keep feeling them. As easy as it is to feel numb, it’s hard to be completely numb. Trust your instinct. Hone your instinct. Expose yourself to diverse perspectives to help you feel the suffering of others. Listen to people different from you.
Know that you aren’t alone. That other people feel this too. We often look for like-minded people. Try to find like-feeling people, people who empathize with God’s pathos, too.
More than anything, though, be OK with feeling those feelings. I need to tell myself that. Even the little things. Even if it’s Mufasa falling to his death or my favorite sports teams. There’s no shame and it might even get you closer to God.
This blog post was based on a sermon I gave recently. At the end of the sermon, someone referenced the personal loss and change that I had been enduring lately as a result of Joshua’s resignation and of our consolidation of our congregations. I couldn’t hold my tears back. They streamed my face. I felt closer to God.